Tarragon Theatre’s presentation of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is not for purists. Those looking for a standard-issue staging of the Bard will freak at this production.
This show is bare bones and the stage is mostly stripped, with only a row of microphone stands and a few chairs. We’re in a smoky, darken nightclub, sliced open with harsh spotlights, and a piano stashed in the corner. While the production follows the text, the words are anticipated and followed by a musical score that snakes around the emotions of this unfolding tragedy. Many of the actors play instruments, including Noah Reid as Hamlet, wearing this generation’s moniker, a hoodie. He’s gads about this darkened world, like the unruly son of a corporation’s CEO, rather than a Prince of Denmark.
It’s a catchy idea, but what makes this production work, and what makes it fascinating, is the acting, the details, and the thinking that went into it. This show has flashes of intellectual rigour, and a capable cast. Tarragon’s Hamlet has solid team work, and when the engine is turned on, this Hamlet hums along at a clip, keeps you entertained, and jacked-up.
If you’re game, you’ll love it. Not everything works, but most of it reminds us how sharp this play is.
Hamlet really stands or falls on the actor who plays the character of Hamlet. To my mind, Noah Reid delivers one of the most lucid, intriguing, and deeply felt Hamlet I’ve ever seen. He does so because he doesn’t play the Prince as some sort of tormented wreck, lurching from one scene to the next. Instead, he gives us a sharp, nibble prince, and one who is emotionally cut to the quick.
As the play opens, the King, Hamlet’s father, has just died suddenly, of mysterious causes. Then, almost immediately, Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, abandoned her widowhood and married Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, and the King’s brother.
This has all happens so rapidly, it leaves Hamlet reeling. As if this isn’t enough, Hamlet believes he sees his dead father’s ghost. The ghost, represented only by a voice, explains that he, the King, was in fact murdered by Claudius who now sits, unlawfully, upon the throne, the King’s wife in tow.
It’s often commented that all of these events cause Hamlet to fall into “melancholy” or depression. But Hamlet isn’t “depressed” in a conventional sense. He’s in shock. His reality has been blown away, and he’s left walking through a familiar world he no longer belongs to. He’s as alert as if he’s walking through a mine field, and weirdly, this gives the play a sense of dangerous fun.
Now, as Prince, Hamlet “feigns” madness as he plays the detective, trying to put together evidence in order to justify his plan to avenge his father’s murder. But is Hamlet mad? Or does he merely pretend to be so, to gain time for his plan. But Reid’s performance suggests that Hamlet himself is never sure if he’s mad or not. Reid dices with his internal demons, and as he does so, he gains our trust and deeper pity. Hamlet tries to act, but winds up merely “reacting”. This seems quite consistent for a man for whom reality has no hard lines, no hard walls. Where all are lies and whispers. Where the whole court holds power through “fake news”?
There are all kinds of stand out performances. Nigel Shawn Williams is a likeable, practical-minded Claudius who grows more desperate as Hamlet’s anarchy spreads across the court; Tiffany Ayalik is a strangely alluring, and genuinely tragic Ophelia, who finally succumbs to the stresses that press on her. Tantoo Cardinal gives the wondrous description of Ophelia’s body floating in her watery grave, in a way that almost makes one weep. Again and again, in this production, one could hear the feeling behind the words in this play. Jesse LaVercombe is terrific as Guildenstern and later as Osrich. And Cliff Saunders is a peach of a Polonius, judicious, misguided, funny. And as the gravedigger, full of practical shop-talk, he is a revelation.
Hamlet is a play about a search for vengeance and justice. But as is usually the case, the consequences of attaining these are catastrophic. Justice is often more costly than a lack of it. Even life itself begs the question: is all this suffering worth it? And yet all these questions and mysteries lie at the centre of a whirlwind drama, full of frenzied activity. For all its flaws, and near misses, Tarragon’s Hamlet seems to me well worth it, especially to see Noah Reid in this very difficult, always compelling role.
Richard Rose, Director
Thomas Ryder Payne Sound Designer, Music Director
Jason Hand, Lighting Designer
Kathleen Johnston, Costume Designer
John Stead, Fight Director
Helen Monroe, Assistant Director
Natasha Bean-Smith, Stage Manager
Alice Ferreyra, Apprentice Stage Manager
Tiffany Ayalik, Ophelia
Rachel Cairns, Rosencrantz
Tantoo Cardinal, Gertrude
Beau Dixon /Barnardo, Player Queen
Greg Gale, Horatio
Jesse LaVercombe / Guildenstern, Osric
Brandon McGibbon, Laertes
Jack Nicholsen/ Marcellus, Player King
Noah Reid, Hamlet
Cliff Saunders Polonius, Gravedigger
Nigel Shawn Williams /Claudius
Written by William Shakespeare
Cover photo: Noah Reid by Jim Ryce
All music composed and arranged by the ensemble.
Cylla von Tiedemann – production shots